Why philanthropy should fund social movements


Joris Leverink


At PEXForum 2022, Joris Leverink was one of the keynote speakers that shared their vision on using the lenses of systems approaches and collaboration to affect change and address inequities.

There is no blueprint for systems change. Social change is a messy, unpredictable and chaotic process that is often surprising and sometimes uncomfortable. Civil society organisations and NGOs play an important role in cultivating a healthy and diverse oppositional ecology. But by their very nature they are forced to ‘play by the rules’ navigating their way through the institutional landscape dominated by states, corporations, supranational bodies and other powerful players.

As Nora Bateson put it in a recent article: ‘The system can’t change the system. The rules of the game do not include changing the rules of the game.’ Social change happens when these rules are broken.

Social movements are rule breakers. For most of modern history, social movements have been at the forefront of some of the most iconic social justice and equality struggles, from the struggle for women’s voting rights to the civil rights movement. Social movements have the capacity to influence public opinion; to mobilise, motivate and inspire a critical mass to either start building dual power structures, or pressure parties and politicians to introduce, vote on and pass legislation.

Social movements make the seemingly impossible imaginable by shifting public opinion and altering the limits of political possibility.

Averting disaster

For progressive funders there’s a risk of targeting the symptoms of systemic inequality, rather than its root causes. Any form of philanthropy that fails to address the question of what generated the suffering in the first place, and what long-term solutions there might be to end its continual reproduction, is little more than a gesture of goodwill.

The challenges we’re facing currently are of historic proportions. The triple threat of the resurgence of fascism, unprecedented wealth inequality and the escalating climate catastrophe together create a perfect storm that endangers human life on this planet as we know it.

Progressive funders have an important role to play in averting this disaster. It’s not necessary to come up with a quick fix to somehow reset the system. In our collective struggle for social justice, wealth equality, decolonisation, gender emancipation, LGBTQ+ acceptance, worker rights, anti-racist and anti-fascist organising and a livable planet for all, we each have a role to play. That of progressive funders is to redistribute wealth, to level the playing field, to channel resources to those groups and communities fighting on the front lines everyday for our collective survival.

The role of progressive funders is to fund social movements.

Funding social movements ought to be a long-term commitment, so as to grant front-line communities the necessary resources that allow them to organise over extended periods of time, even when there appears to be not much going on. In the words of Guerrilla Foundation’s comms wizard Ivan March: ‘Resourcing activism is not compatible with quick-fix, magic bullet or short-cut tactics. It is a long-distance run. It takes time, patience and perseverance.’

Social movements are often led by volunteer activists who themselves are frequently members of the front-line communities that are directly impacted by the very issues they’re campaigning against. Funding social movements thus means not only supporting essential social, economic and climate justice struggles, but also to extend a hand and to stand in solidarity with those front-line communities in struggle.

Sharing power

At this point it is important for funders to acknowledge the limits of their knowledge and experience, and be willing to take a backseat. It’s not about granting the money and buying a seat at the organising table. It is important for wealthy individuals and foundations to be mindful of their power and privilege and to be brave enough to take a step back and let others decide how their wealth is being spent.

This can be done, for example, through the practice of participatory grantmaking, which will help your organisations to become more accountable; to increase your transparency; and it entrenches a practice and culture of collaboration at the very heart of your organisation. Break up the funder-grantee division and involve the recipients of foundation grants into the decision-making process. Participatory grantmaking shifts decision-making power from grantmakers to grantees.

As we find ourselves at a historic crossroads, it is imperative that we recognise the central role played by social movements in bringing about systems change and to act accordingly: allocate funds for social movements; recognise the leadership and expertise of local organisers and front-line communities; and open up your organisations to activists and make them part of your decision making processes. It will certainly help turning the odds in our favor.

Joris Leverink is a writer, editor and activist based in Istanbul, Turkey. Until its recent closure, he was managing editor at the social movement journal ROAR Magazine. He is currently a member of the Guerrilla Foundation’s Activist Council, the organisation’s participatory grantmaking body.

Tagged in: PEXForum 2022

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *